Haunting eyes in a freight car shadow survivor

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 22, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In Michael Olesker's column last Thursday on Leo Bretholz, i was stated incorrectly that Mr. Bretholz was arrested at the Swiss border by a German guard. In fact, it was a Swiss border guard who made the arrest and turned over Mr. Bretholz, then on the run from the Nazis, to the German guard.

The Sun regrets the errors.

He still sees the old woman on crutches inside his head. She will never go away. She is standing there in the cattle car, in the final hours of her existence, and she is pointing one crutch at Leo Bretholz like a weapon.

Half a century later, Bretholz closes his eyes, and all of the doomed are still there: Fifty to a freight car, 20 cars in a line, a thousand people in all headed to the death camp called Auschwitz for the crime of being Jewish.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The Germans were meticulous in their record-keeping. Leo Bretholz has looked up the numbers since then: Of the thousand, 773 were gassed on arrival. Of the thousand, only four were alive at war's end.

And yesterday, the day before the official opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, Bretholz made an early pilgrimage to the place, and the memories returned of the train ride to Auschwitz and the woman with the crutches.

''Her eyes,'' he says, ''are in my mind all the time. Deep-set, hurtful eyes, red from crying. She had one leg which had been amputated at the knee. And she was trying to console a child whose parents had been separated into some other train car.''

The sounds in the train come back to him, too: those praying ancient prayers and those weeping, and those frantically debating what awaited them at the end of the railroad line.

''They're going to kill us all,'' some cried.

''No, no,'' came a response. ''They could have killed us earlier. Why take us all this distance?''

Bretholz knew better, knew it in his bones, and the old woman on crutches did, too. Everyone had heard rumors of the death camps by this late autumn of 1942, and now Bretholz and a friend spoke of trying to squeeze past two iron bars in a tiny window in the freight car and jumping to freedom.

Don't do it, some said, you'll be killed. Don't do it, others said, the Germans will be angry and take it out on us. Bretholz, 21 then, found himself immobilized.

And then came the old woman, carrying this child in one arm and raising her crutch like a weapon with the other. ''You must do it,'' she declared hoarsely, ''because who else will tell the world about us?''

The Holocaust Museum will open today to remind the world of all those in the trains, and what happened to them when they reached the camps, and hope that half a century after the fact, the world will listen.

Leo Bretholz holds little scraps of history in his hands now: a yellow Jewish star he was forced to wear on his coat; the death records of his mother and his sisters, who were 20 and 14 when the Germans put them to death.

He'd already been separated from them by the time of the train ride to Auschwitz. Fled Austria for Belgium, then France. Made it to the Swiss border with two other young men and a girl, where a German border guard with a dog seized them.

''We cried, we knelt, we begged him to let us go,'' he remembers. ''The guard laughed at us.''

And now, once again, the train ride to Auschwitz comes into his head. He and a friend pulled off their sweaters and soaked them in the only water available: waste that had collected on the floor of the train.

Then they each wrapped the sweaters around the old iron bars on the freight car window and tugged back and forth, the rusting bars yielding slowly as the hours went by, and the two men growing more feverish to escape while there was time.

They jumped into a ravine in a French region known as Bar-le-Duc, found a country road, walked until they found a village where they walked into a bakery. There is nothing left for sale, the baker told them. We don't want bread, they told him, we want a priest.

They were hidden overnight, then directed to another priest. They slept in barns, huddled between cows. Finally made it to Paris, joined the French underground, survived until war's end.

At the Holocaust Museum, there is a freight car like the ones the Germans used. Bretholz stepped inside it, and again he saw the faces of the doomed. And again he saw the woman with the crutch, pointing it at him like a weapon and commanding him from a November night in 1942:

''Now go.''

He paused, uncertain.

''Now, go,'' she said again.

And tell the world.

And hope that, after all this time, the world will care.

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